7 Mistakes to Avoid When Submitting Your Novel

The difference between getting a serious read and having your manuscript go straight to the delete file can come down to something as seemingly simple as improper formatting.

Here are five mistakes that will ensure your manuscript doesn’t get read by an agent or editor:

1. Single spacing and non-standard spacing between paragraphs

Manuscripts should be double-spaced, with a standard indention in each paragraph. Don’t add extra lines between paragraphs, either. You’re not writing for the web! Adding extra spaces between paragraphs instead of indenting the first line of each paragraph is a common mistake that screams “unprofessional.”

2. A rambling or boastful cover letter.

A cover letter for a novel should provide a brief synopsis, as well as your previous publications or relevant qualifications (an MFA in creative writing, for example, or a writing workshop through a respected university or with a well-known writer). While it should definitely have a hook, it should not tell the reader that it’s “the best book you’ll read this year,” “a sure bestseller,” or “a riveting adventure story.” That’s for the reader to decide.

Remember, agents and editors have been around the block. They know how hard it is for a book to be a genuine bestseller (not an Amazon bestseller, which, it turns out, is kind of a scam). They know that even much-anticipated titles with high-level support from the publisher often don’t make the New York Times bestseller list, the USA Today bestseller list, the Indie Next bestseller list, or any of the lists that matter. So if you tell them your book is destined to be a bestseller, it makes you look arrogant and uninformed.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with self-publishing, but if you’ve done that, never include Amazon reviews in your cover letter as a way of validating your book. On the other hand, if you’ve sold 10,000 copies or more of your book on Amazon (meaning people have paid for it, not that you’ve given it away for free), include that in your letter. It shows that you’ve already done some groundwork and people have found your book interesting enough to pay for it.

Your cover letter should be interesting and engaging, and it should make the agent or editor in question want to read your book. Anything you write that makes you seem self-centered or difficult to work with will lead to a swift rejection.

3. Weird fonts

If you’re tempted to get creative with fonts, don’t. Cursive, all caps, excessive bolding, or difficult-to-read fonts come off as unprofessional and even aggressive. Stick to Times New Roman, Garamond, or Helvetica?—?something simple, clean, and easy to read. Courier used to be the standard, but it looks oddly old-fashioned now (everyone knows you’re not using an actual typewriter). 12 points has long been the standard, but in a slightly smaller font, like Garamond, I’ll often use 13 points to increase readability.

4. An excessive or overwritten prologue

This, I admit, may be a matter of taste. However, in general, agents and editors want to get right into a book. They want to be hooked from sentence once. Often, writers will decide to put their “best writing” in a prologue. This may be overwritten prose that is intended more to show off. In your opening pages, don’t show off. Hook the reader. Make the story so compelling it’s impossible to put down. Make sure there’s conflict from page one.

5. Lack of Focus

An agent or editor should know very quickly what kind of book he or she is getting into. The cover letter will do a lot of this work for you: it should let the reader know what the genre is, and what the book is about. Is it a literary thriller? Is it a literary coming-of-age novel with mainstream appeal? Is it a historical romance? Don’t be afraid of labels! 

Labels save the reader a lot of time and let them know that a:) you’ve thought about how to market the book and b:) there is a specific audience for this book.

6. Lack of “Comps”

Be sure to include comps: comparabe books that have sold well in the last few years. If you don’t include two or three comps, it looks as though you know nothing about the industry and you don’t care enough to think about who your book will appeal to.

7. A Boring First Chapter

If the agent or editor reads past the cover letter to page one of the novel, you’re already ahead. Don’t squander that first chapter! The chapter should deliver on the promise of the cover letter. The reader needs to know that she’s in good hands, that this is the work of a competent storyteller who knows what she’s writing about, and why.

Michelle Richmond is the author of four novels and two story collections and the founder of micro-press Fiction Attic. This piece is excerpted from her Publishing Crash Course: Agents, Editors, Independent Publishing Vs. Traditional, and How to Beat the Odds.

In Conversation with Julian Barnes, May 23rd

Join me in conversation with Julian Barnes, British novelist and winner of the Man Booker Prize, at the Menlo Atherton Center for Performing Arts on May 23rd.

About the Evening, a Kepler’s Premier Event

Julian Barnes in conversation with Michelle Richmond

Monday, May 23, 2016, 7:30 p.m.

The Noise of Time

Menlo-Atherton High School Center for Performing Arts, 555 Middlefield Rd., Atherton

Tickets are available at Kepler’s and online at Brown Paper Tickets

For many of us, we are still taken aback by the elegant and provocative novel The Sense of an Ending, which earned Julian Barnes the Man Booker Prize in 2011. The judges took 31 minutes to declare the winner, and the head judge said that The Sense of an Ending “spoke to humankind in the 21st Century.”

Perhaps you aren’t a reader of fiction or you’ve never picked up a Julian Barnes book before… this event will still resonate with you. As JFK once said, “If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth.” Join the discussion of what happens to art and artists under oppression and what happens when government seeks to control and even co-op artists and their art.

This is a rare opportunity to hear one of our most brilliant writers talk about his creative process, his inspirations, and so much more, and just in time for the film adaptation of The Sense of an Ending, which is slated to release in 2016.

Julian Barnes is the author of numerous novels, story collections, translations, and essays on art. In addition to the 2011 Man Booker prize-winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, his fiction includes Flaubert’s Parrot and Arthur & George, both short-listed for the Man Booker prize. In 2016, the American Academy of Arts & Letters elected Barnes as an honorary foreign member.

Michelle Richmond is the New York Times bestselling author of four novels, including Golden State and The Year of Fog, and two story collections, including Hum, winner of the Catherine Doctorow Innovative Fiction Prize. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press.

NOTE: Mr. Barnes will sign copies of The Noise of Time and up to 3 other books per guest.

Event date:
Monday, May 23, 2016 – 7:30pm
Event address:
1010 El Camino Real
Menlo Park, CA 94025-4349


Teju Cole – Known and Strange Things

There is another possible book that contains all that is not in this one.

 So says Teju Cole in the introduction to his wonderful essay collection, Known and Strange Things. Wide-ranging and deliciously exploratory, the collection tackles politics, art, literature, and travel. I love essay collections that are not narrowly defined, collections that lay the path open for surprise, as this one does. 
While Cole is referring, in part, to the many previously published pieces that he has not included in this collection, hos words ring true for me as a novelist. In every book I write, I fall short of my own expextations. For every book that I publish, there exists another one, just out of reach, “that contains all that is not in this one.” 

Writing Fiction

8-Week Fiction Writing Course – Delivered Right to Your Inbox

Learn to write fiction

Enroll in this 8-Week Fiction Writing Course to have lessons, assignments, and inspiration delivered right to your inbox.

About: Get the tools you need to turn your ideas into stories! In this 8-week email course, you’ll learn how to write short stories using the fundamental building blocks of fiction. This class was designed by New York Times bestselling author, veteran writing teacher, and small press publisher Michelle Richmond.

It’s all about craft: Discover the secret structure that will help you shape any story. Learn how to create complex characters, write a suspenseful plot, choose the best point of view for your story, get your characters talking, pace your story with the right balance of scene and summary, and more.

Outcome: By the end of the class, you will have written and revised at least two short stories or novel chapters, and you will have a strong understanding of narrative craft.

Structure: Every week, you’ll get new video and written lessons and a related assignment to help you put your new knowledge into practice. During the first week, you’ll write your first story, based on the 5-part structure you’ll learn in the first module. After that, each week will lead you deeper into the writing of your story or novel.*

Dates: This course begins the moment you enroll and lasts for eight weeks. As soon as you enroll, you’ll receive a welcome email and your first module, delivered right to your inbox. There’s no signing in; the class comes to you.

There’s an app for that! The free, easy-to-use gumroad app allows you to view the lessons on your tablet or phone, but you an also view them online or download the lessons as a PDF.

If you’ve always wanted to write fiction but don’t know where to begin, this course is for you. Taught by a New York Times bestselling author with more than a decade of experience teaching creative writing at the university level, WRITING FICTION provides a great foundation for anyone interested in writing and publishing short stories or novels.

Please note that this is not a workshop course. If you would like to receive feedback on your assignments, you can purchase the Critique Add-On at any time.



CNET begins publishing fiction : Technically Literate and my story, The Last Taco Truck in Silicon Valley

CNET kicked off its brand new fiction series this month with my short story, The Last Taco Truck in Silicon Valley. The CNET fiction series is edited and curated by Janis Cooke Newman (author most recently of A Master Plan for Rescue). CNET’s fiction series features stories about tech, beautifully illustrated and animated (Roman Murdov illustrated The Last Taco Truck, with animations by Justin Herman). At the bottom of the story, you’ll find a video: CNET News Editor-in-Chief Connie Guglielmo and I visited a taco truck near the CNET headquarters, where we talked about Silicon Valley culture, women in tech, and, of course, how to order a taco.

About the story, The Last Taco Truck in Silicon Valley:

An Evangelista—i.e. the Chief Evangelist for a heritage hoodie startup in Silicon Valley—is held hostage in a taco truck. Meanwhile, a guy from Portland with too many debts, is posing as El Taco Hombre. Add the mantra of all marketing—There’s social proof, there’s authority, and there’s scarcity, and the greatest of these is scarcity—to spice things up. Mix it all together, and what you have is a story that sends up everything we in the tech and hipster haven of the Bay Area hold near and dear. Plus the unforgettable hashtag #FrancoNeedsATaco

Technically Literate and “The Last Taco Truck in Silicon Valley” was covered in The New York Times, Publishing Perspectives, the San Francisco Chronicle, Tech News Daily, Chowhound, and elsewhere. As a writer, it’s exciting to see such a respected icon of the tech publishing world reaching out to find and promote literature. To me, it feels like a natural partnership. Tech is so deeply a part of the way we write, and even more a part of the way we reach readers, and I believe CNET, which gets 30 million visitors per month, will bring short fiction to an entirely new readership.

In her foreword to Technically Literate, Newman talks about how the series came to be, and the intersection between art and tech–both in our lives and in the microcosm of San Francisco.

When CNET first approached me with the idea that would become Technically Literate, it seemed like a collision of worlds, until I considered the geography of my day. The San Francisco Bay Area is home to equally vibrant, equally innovative, technology and literary communities. And in the way they share the topography of the city, they also share a world of common touch points.


What’s literature got to do with tech? Guglielmo told Alexandra Alter of The New York Times

“We hope it will help us expand our brand,” Connie Guglielmo, CNET News’s editor in chief, said of the series. “If you don’t experiment, you stay in place, and that’s kind of counter to the culture here.”

The next three stories for the series will be by Anthony Mara, Cristina Garcia, and Nayomi Numaweera.